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Kung Fu Hustle

It’s really not often that I can say I’ve gone to see a movie that i knew virtually nothing about. While it does happen from time to time, mostly I’ll have visited the official web page or at least have checked out what the flick heads at IMDB have to say about it, before stepping into the cinema. However, other than the name of the guy who wrote it and what I’d seen in the trailers I knew very little about KUNG FU HUSTLE when I bought my ticket.

Sometimes it’s a gamble that pays off, other times you end seeing something like EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY and swear you’ll never go to the movies again.. So, what about this time? Did this gamble pay off?

As it usually plays out a writer, a director or an actor has to make the move to English speaking films to gain much (read: ANY) success with us ’round eyes’. However Stephen Chow seems like he’s on the road to success in a big way, without making that compromise and he wears all three of those hats! His success in Asian cinema and television is undeniable (with over sixty movies and television shows to his name) he is clearly no new comer. However his most well known work to date here would have to be SHAOLIN SOCCER – A movie which I have to confess has been on my ‘YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS’ list for quite some time, but have never managed to get around to seeing. So, despite knowing very little about it, I jumped at the opportunity to see Stephen Chow’s latest mainstream Australian cinema release: Kung fu Hustle.

I want to start out by saying this in big letters so that it doesn’t catch anyone by surprise (like it did me): KUNG FU HUSTLE is subtitled! But I also what to make it clear that you shouldn’t let that fact act as a deterrent when considering seeing this movie. However, having said that, I can completely understand why it will deter some people, after all, there’s always the old “If I wanted to read, I’d take a book to the movies with me!” argument.

It’s clear from very early on in this film that it is rich with influences from many different genres of film making, as well as many different cultural influences. There are distinct references to THE MATRIX, while at the same time the opening dance number has a definite ‘Bollywood’ feel too it. Yes, there’s an opening dance number.. but don’t let that act as a deterrent, it’s actually a pretty cool sequence. Elements of KUNG FU HUSTLE have a PULP FICTION feel about them, while at other times it feels more cartoon like or ‘other worldy’. What makes all this interesting though is that, while many of these influences are obvious and quite deliberate the film doesn’t suffer or feel derivative at all. In fact, the opposite is true: KUNG FU HUSTLE has a really unique feel about it.

One thing that struck me about the story, or rather, the narrative of this film, is that it follows a quite unconventional path. This may be because of the cultural differences and perhaps fans of Asian cinema may want to dispute this point, but for me the movie was somewhat unpredictable. It takes quite some time to establish who the core characters are and just when you think you know who the hero(s) of the story is Stephen Chow’s plot takes a twist and you’re left scratching your head. The same applies for the villains, you can’t get too set on hating any character because they either have a turn of heart or their true back story is revealed and you’re back to not knowing who is who again. Which, after sitting through a glut of somewhat predictable (albeit enjoyable) blockbusters as of late, i found to be a refreshing change.

Visually KUNG FU HUSTLE is beautiful. I say that, not just because of the fantastic looking sets and cinematography, but because of the unique cartoon like appearance of the film. I don’t mean to suggest that the film is animated in any way, what I mean is that the style in which the film was shot, the way the special effects used and, most importantly, the casting has all been done with the intention of creating an ‘unreal’ appearance for the film.

It remains to be said that KUNG FU HUSTLE is an extremely amusing movie. Much of the humour is delivered as though it was written with the intention of crossing the language barrier and much of it does so with great success. Although I have heard others comment that KUNG FU HUSTLE isn’t as funny as SHAOLIN SOCCER, but I cannot vouch for that. All up KUNG FU HUSTLE has acted as a brilliant ‘gate way’ film for me, serving to (finally) introduce me to Stephen Chow’s unique style of story telling and film making. I urge anyone looking for an original film experience to take the time to check out KUNG FU HUSTLE and, while I can totally appreciate that this movie may not be to everyone’s tastes (yeah, no matter what i say that whole subtitle thing is going to be a high hurdle for a lot of people) I’m sure that a large majority of you will come away from the movie appreciating the experience.

[Originally written for EON and published at Gamespace on Tue, 30 Aug 2005]

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